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World leaders gather in South Africa

Joyous, singing South Africans gathered Tuesday to honour Nelson Mandela at a massive memorial service that is expected to draw some 100 heads of state and other luminaries, united in tribute to a man who became a global symbol of reconciliation.

Rain fell as mourners converged on FNB Stadium in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that was a stronghold of support for the anti-apartheid struggle that Mandela embodied, as a prisoner of white rule for 27 years and then during a difficult transition to democracy.

"I would not have the life I have today if it was not for him," said Matlhogonolo Mothoagae, a marketing student who arrived hours before the gates opened. "He was jailed so we could have our freedom."

Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived, reflecting the enormous logistical challenge of organizing the memorial for Mandela, who died Dec. 5 in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.

U.S. President Barack Obama landed in South Africa just hours before he was due to speak at the memorial service.

The sounds of horns and cheering filled the stadium ahead of the ceremony, due to start at 11 a.m. (0900 GMT, 2 a.m. EST). Rain sent those who arrived early into the stadium's covered upper deck.

The 95,000-capacity soccer venue was also the spot where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. After the memorial, his body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, once the seat of white power, before burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.

Police promised tight security, locking down roads kilometres (miles) around the stadium. However, the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched.

John Allen, a 48-year-old pastor from the U.S. state of Arkansas, said he once met Mandela at a shopping centre in South Africa with his sons.

"He joked with my youngest and asked if he had voted for Bill Clinton," Allen said. "He just zeroed in on my 8-year-old for the three to five minutes we talked."

 

The Canadian Press


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